No medal, but the day belongs to Picabo

Published in The Idaho Statesman on Feb. 2, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY — Picabo Street and her mother, Dee, hugged at the base of Snowbasin on Tuesday like there weren’t dozens of journalists and thousands of fans clamoring to get a quote, a look or a wave after the last race of one of America’s favorite athletes.

The two held each other in silence, and then shared the overwhelming sense they were both feeling.

Relief.

“I’m really relieved to be done with my career, really relieved to be safe,” said the skier who’s on a first-name basis with the world.

A skier who ended all doubts Tuesday afternoon.

“I’m officially done with all competitive skiing,” she said. “I’ll always be a child on my skis. It will always be fun for me. I will always be a fan of ski racing. But I’m over it.”

She was telling the rest of us what she and her mother already knew.

Both of them struggled to be here.

Picabo fought a well-known battle back from a horrendous accident in 1998, soon after she won her second Olympic medal — a gold in Nagano, Japan.

Dee has waged a quieter campaign against rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, diseases that have forced her to limp through the Utah snow.

“My mom has trained for the Olympics as well,” Street said. “So she could walk up and sit in the stadium for an entire race.”

The two served as each other’s motivation to get to this point.

But Street’s looking forward to sitting beside the rehabilitation bed now, knowing her experiences can help her guide and encourage her mother through the pain.

It’s just one of many plans the Idaho native has for her retirement. Maybe kids. Maybe another book.

She’s definitely getting married this fall, and she can’t wait to start a hands-on program at her home in Park City, Utah, helping children learn to ski and snowboard.

“My family is still in Sun Valley,” she said. “And I’m there as often as I can be.”

Since the accident, she’s been rediscovering herself. A new relationship with God. A desire to look beyond the desire to be the best.

She’s decided to give herself two years before making any major changes, to figure out exactly who this 30-year-old woman is.

“Hopefully I’ll get introduced to her tonight,” Street said.

Street was already the most successful American in the history of women’s skiing. The super-G gold in Nagano. A downhill silver in Lillehammer. All kinds of World Cup medals. She is the only American, male or female, to win a World Cup title — and she did it two years in a row. But she wanted another one, to be the first U.S. woman to win three Olympic medals. To go out like Michael Jordan.

She didn’t want to let herself want it too much, but she wanted it.

“She wanted to win,” said Street’s 22-year-old teammate Jonna Mendes. “I know she’s disappointed.”

But Mendes knows Street was looking for more than just another victory.

“Picabo and I have been talking a lot,” she said. “I think she’s pretty happy. The fact that she’s healthy, that she has a good support system, that this was in front of an American crowd.”

This is what kept Street going.

She had Wood River High School art teacher John Blackman paint a bald eagle, the Statue of Liberty and the American flag on her helmet. She added a small heart-shaped flag on her cheek.

And she flew, in that characteristically wide tuck, into the arms of fans so adoring they gave up on their Tuesday plans — and tickets — for a chance to see her in a rescheduled race.

Idaho likes to claim Picabo Street as its own. So does Utah.

But her popularity stretches far beyond that. Tuesday, at least, Picabo Street belonged to America.

“My dream and goal was to make it back,” she said. “I loved hearing American´s roar and seeing the American flag.”

Her 16th place was a disappointment, sure, but she had other achievements to be proud of.
She tore out at the start. Showed no fear at the jumps.

There was no sign of post-injury jitters as she flew over “Lynn’s Launch” into view of the Snowbasin grandstands.

Mendes said it’s probably hard for Street to quit now, when she’s skiing so well. But there’s a change that Street and her family have sensed over these past few years.

Her father, Ron, used to stay up nights, waiting for the phone call to hear she had won again. Since the comeback, he’s waited up to hear that she’s done and safe.

Tuesday afternoon, after the race, Street came out for a curtain call for the reporters that stayed on the mountain to hear from her.

The only time she showed signs of tears, was when she recalled what her brother had said when she hugged him after the race.

Just kicking the starting gate open, he told her, was enough to make the family proud.

This new Picabo Street had a message for that family when the old Picabo Street was done with her last ski race. “Now that I don’t have to win anymore,” she said, “I’ll be home.”

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